The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

H106: Grooming and Picking General Officers

In his article, A Failure in Generalship, Paul Yingling argues that the American army’s process for selecting generals is flawed. He advocates taking the general officer promotion system away from the military and making it a task for Congress. Retired MG Scales wrote an article which seemed to back up Yingling’s view. Numerous other analysts believe that Yingling’s general point is accurate. Defense analyst Tom Ricks has just published a book on the subject called The Generals –I suspect somewhat inspired by Yingling’s article (see the Atlantic article related to the book –click here).

There are essentially two different military philosophies regarding the system used to pick general officers. One view is a view that comes from the French revolutionary armies of the 18th and early 19th century. That view is promotion should be based strictly on merit. In this system officers are selected from among their peers for promotion based on their demonstrated performance of duty. Ultimately, this promotion by merit system results in the most competent officers achieving the highest rank.

A second system comes from the Prussian army of the 19th Century. That view is to identify through rigorous testing a small elite cadre of the most intelligent officers in the army. These officers then are specially educated and assigned for the rest of their careers. They are specifically groomed to lead the army at the highest levels. Promotion in this system is based on intellectual ability, special education, and talent.

The promotion by merit system assumes that the best qualifications for command are demonstrated by success in command. This philosophy is traditionally the bedrock of promotion in the naval service (both in the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy) where time in command of ships and at sea are the ultimate test of fitness for command.

Which system does the U.S. army promotion system seem to follow? Is Yingling right? Is there a failure of generalship in the U.S. Army? If so, is it because of the selection philosophy the army uses, or, is it just that the execution of the process is flawed? If the selection process is flawed, how does that explain Generals like Patraeus and McCrystal? What process or philosophy do you believe produces the best senior leaders? Does the senior officer promotion system need to change?

October 10, 2018 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. I think the Army promotion system most closely resembles the merit system of the French revolutionary armies of the 18th and 19th century. Leaders are selected from among their peer group based on performance in current and past jobs and leadership positions (not just command), physical fitness, appearance, and potential for increased responsibility. I do not agree with Yingling, I believe general officers or potential for generalship should come from senior military leaders. Senior military leaders that have the experience and knowledge that know and appreciate the skills, attributes, and expertise necessary to be successful as a strategic leader.

    I would not say that there is a failure of generalship in the Army, however, we can do a lot to improve how we select, train, and prepare our senior leaders selected to be general officers. Patraeus and McChrystal are all great examples of how, despite the challenges our current system faces, these great leaders were able to adapt and overcome to the benefit of the force and the nation. I do believe the execution of the process is flawed. We need to incorporate aspects of both the merit system and the elite training and education systems of the Prussian army in the 19th century. To be successful in the future as we transition to large-scale combat operations, we must identify the best and brightest leaders early to give the Army the best chance of being agile and adaptive enough to defeat near-peer threats of the future.

    Comment by Aaron S. Griffin | October 15, 2018

  2. Our system is not perfect, but it is not something to scoff at. The United States does have a Merit system in place, but it does adopt, to some extent, the Prussian elite model based on its education requirements. However, the education requirements could be any concentration of education (a four-year degree in anything get you into OCS).

    I do agree with Yinglin that the system needs improvement. We need a track that does award performance relevant to military tactics and performance that show potential for operational and strategic thinking at higher levels. We also need a track that seeks out those with a theoretical mindset in warfare; those who thrive in theoretical thought in the affairs of military conflict. The “operator” and “intellect” must be part of the holistic generalship that plans, prepares and executes strategy.

    As a system, we must establish environments that fish out those with strategic inclinations (i.e. white papers, online “white blogs” that give those in the shadows an incentive to prime their hidden talent). At the higher levels, if Congress is to be involved, we need those with military experience, military history, and philosophy backgrounds to be part of panels that review and approve recommendations for GOs.

    Comment by Carlos Ruiz | October 21, 2018

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